Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent Traditions: Encouraging Affection, Kindness, and Gratitude with Tiny Food and Little Notes

Happy Advent, which I guess technically started yesterday, but in my household it begins officially on December 1st (making me early! At least in the U.S.!) Last year, I wrote about my family's advent traditions which are focused around a little Elf dropping by to leave the kids little gifts and chocolates in a pocket calendar to minimize the "I can't wait for Christmas" whining. I also linked to a zillion ways to make your own creative calendar. (You can see my 2008 post here - I checked and all the links still work. Amazing.)

Anyhow, over the last year while working on my Preschooler Problem Solver book, I talked to a lot of parents about their families' holiday traditions and ended up feeling regretful that I'd failed to take our calendar tradition to the next level and use it to help instill some better character traits in my kids. Some families, for example, instead of doling out more goodies every day to their already privileged kiddos, set up a little empty creche with a container of straw next to it. The idea is that the kids (and I guess the adults too) add a straw to the creche each time they do a good deed. The family tries to amass enough kind works to create a nice cozy soft bed for the baby Jesus by December 24th. They didn't mention anything about having to remove straws for evil deeds done to your little brother, but that corollary might be useful in certain unnamed households.

Other families have traditions like decorating a tree via good deeds (you add an ornament each time you do something kind), having secret Santas within the family, secretly delivering goodies or thank you notes to deserving people around the community, or putting notes with compliments or promises of a family activity in their calendars instead of sugary things or cute erasers shaped like animals.

The closest my family came to some advent altruism was leaving an occasional little something for the advent elf and writing him teeny thank you notes at the end of the advent season. I'm reasonably proud I did that (not every night or anything! I was way too tired, plus struggling to remember to, um, remind the elf to visit in a timely fashion). You can read about sending elf thank yous in a post from last year here and find my pdf template for making a cute cardstock elf mailbox and mini card and envelope here. Anyhow, today's craft is making elf-sized food and arranging a welcoming rest stop for the present-deliverer who visits your house. This stuff is actually edible, as both I and the dog can attest.

Naked Mimi, above (I will finish her dress one of these days, very soon), is standing, or more precisely, sitting in for our elf, who just happens to be 9 inches tall like her, in front of a tempting wee feast, featuring a properly crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cut on the diagonal as it should be, potato chips, apple slices, and bits of a blackberry artfully arranged to look like grapes (until they shriveled up while they sat on the counter for a couple hours waiting for me to get around to taking a picture of them).
We have prepared almost this same menu with great success for our ant picnics/science experiments on many occasions, and I can testify that the recipes are easy enough for a four year old to manage most of the steps, (leaving only a little peanut butter globbed on the underside of the kitchen table to be discovered at a later date by an unwary visitor's knees).

Take a slice of bread (white is best, given the suggested use for the leftovers for "cinnamon rolls" - but you can use whole grain white if your elf is into healthy eating). Cut off the crusts and hand your kid a rolling pin. A full-size one works fine, but it's much, much more satisfying to use one of those little ones that comes with play kitchen sets. (If the bread is too wide for the little roller, you can cut it in half.) Roll the bread out as thin as possible (which is amazingly thin). Cut two small squares to the scale of your choice, and then thinly spread jelly on one side and pb (or vegemite or whatever it's called in Australia) on the other. (Fingers or a table knife work fine for spreading, but again, a toy knife will seem just right.) Pre-slice an apple into smallish bits and give your child a plastic or toy knife to make them smaller yet. One potato chip broken into tiny bits will yield enough elf chips to last him several days. The blackberry thing is probably best reserved for someone with a delicate touch, like not your average 4-year-old boy.
Then it's onto dessert! The cookie plate above features a pseudo cinnamon roll made by spreading a wide strip of the remaining smushed bread with a smear of Nutella (possibly the most heavenly substance known to man), which is then rolled up jelly-roll style and carefully sliced into spirals. If you were being very fancy, you could squeeze a little white frosting on it. I am too lazy. The cookies are made from a small ball of toll house cookie dough snagged from the batch of cookies I was making for the college student about to head back to school after break. For the chocolate chip cookie on the right, I just mixed in a few mini-morsels and shaped the whole thing into a ball slightly larger than a petite pea. The pseudo peanut butter kiss on the left was made from a ball of plain dough, baked along side the chocolate chip cookie (and lots of their little companions) at 375 F for 3 minutes (cooking times may vary by oven - start checking at the 2 minute mark). A mini morsel was pressed into the center of the cookie while it was still hot.
If it were the elf's birthday or he'd been especially thoughtful and generous lately, you could bake him a cake like the one above. It was made by baking two slightly larger balls of plain cookie dough (about the size of a smallish grape I'd say) for 3 and 1/2 minutes. After cooling, the top of one cookie was spread with Nutella and the other cookie carefully stacked on top of it. The whole thing was then covered with more Nutella, which proved to be a fairly messy venture. I think you could use melted chocolate chips for the frosting, which might work better as the chocolate would firm up while it cooled (the Nutella stayed deliciously and messily moist, even until the next day). The top was decorated with little holiday cake decoration thingies made of some kind of hard inedible sugar stuff and sold in a little jar at the supermarket. Tiny sprinkles would look nice too and be equally inedible.

We arranged a couple birthday candles in button candle holders on the table we set up for the elf, just to make the whole thing look appropriately festive, but I definitely don't recommend lighting these before bed in anticipation of the elf's visit. I believe he carries his own matches and will light them himself when he comes.

It would be awfully sweet for your child to make a miniature thank you drawing for the elf and dictate a note for him to read while he eats his snack. A really nice elf might write a note back from time to time, thereby reinforcing good manners and encouraging literacy skills.

Next up: preparations for St. Nicholas Day (December 6th).


crzylady said...

the cuteness of it all. To tell you the truth it makes me want to cry a bit. I can't even pull myself together to make a lovely plate like that for us to eat, let alone take the time to make teensy weensy ones for elves! But the tree is up. Score one for me

Carol Baicker-McKee said...

Thanks for the compliment - but I can't manage the human-size stuff either (except for the cookies, and guilt gets me every time). It's just more fun to make the little things.

And if you have your tree up, you're WAY ahead of me. Maybe next weekend. Maybe.